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A SPACE OF THEIR OWN

by Lydia Lum

Ethnic-themed dorms offer a supportive environment for minorities, but critics say they stunt personal growth by promoting self-segregation.

As soon as he learned of his Cornell University housing options, Darin Jones knew he wanted to live in the African-American-themed dorm. Having grown up in Black neighborhoods, he didn’t want to risk being the only Black student in a hall or entire floor elsewhere on campus.

Now a junior majoring in policy analysis and management, Jones is living in the same dorm for a third year. He credits its familylike atmosphere in helping him earn a 3.0 grade point average. “This dorm is Cornell’s best retention tool for Blacks. I couldn’t achieve as much academically if I wasn’t in a place where I felt so easily accepted.”

Jones is among a growing number of college students around the country flocking to residence halls dedicated to ethnic themes and historically marginalized populations. Ethnic-themed dorms offer minorities a safe space to discuss race, among other things, educators and students say. Activities there include performances and celebrations tied to cultural holidays as well as guest speakers and faculty mentors.

Cornell, for example, boasts a campus house celebrating Native American heritage, one of the first of its kind in the country when it opened in 1991. Amherst College, to name another, sets aside a specific floor of one of its dorms as an Asian culture wing, among other theme offerings.

For decades, many universities have attached themes to some of its residence halls, encouraging students with similar interests to live among each other, such as outdoor enthusiasts or sci-fi buffs. Some schools also designate housing for students intent on fluency in a foreign language so that they can better immerse themselves.

Meanwhile, ethnic theme housing springs from college officials’ efforts to provide supportive environments to minorities and underrepresented students at predominantly White institutions. Housing officials say it also creates opportunities for majority students to learn more about people different from them by living among them.

Exact numbers of students in ethnic housing aren’t known. The number of universities that offer it isn’t known either. But as the college- going population grows increasingly diverse, more students and their parents are seeking ethnic housing and, in some cases, asking schools lacking it to strongly consider it, according to Terra Peckskamp, Syracuse University’s interim director of residence life who’s also familiar with national trends.

Ethnic housing students around the country span the gamut of academic majors, experts say. They’re fairly balanced between men and women. And like other residence halls, ethnic dorm residents tend to be freshmen and underclassmen.

This latter tendency causes some observers to criticize ethnic housing as a crutch that stunts young people’s coping skills. Opponents say such housing prevents minorities from learning to adapt to new, unfamiliar environments. Besides, the real world doesn’t separate people just so they will feel comfortable.

Multiple Models

Some of this criticism has surfaced at campuses already offering race-based theme housing. In Amherst’s student newspaper this past spring, its editorial board called for the end of such housing, writing that the school “does not need to maintain official venues that in essence encourage some students to self-segregate. Enforced contact with individuals from backgrounds very different from their own leads students to develop the broad range of friendships and conversations that are a hallmark of life.”

In response, several Amherst students, including some in ethnic housing, wrote letters to the editor defending it. They said it lets students explore aspects of their heritage they didn’t learn before college. And, residents often plan programs open to the entire college community that may not necessarily come to fruition among ethnic clubs and student groups because of time and other constraints.

Amherst officials, through a spokeswoman, declined a Diverse interview request.

Aware that debates like the one at Amherst can arise anytime, anywhere, officials at schools such as Emory University aim for a down-the-middle approach. All freshmen live on campus, but cannot live in ethnic dorms until their sophomore year to better their odds of a broad-based, first-year experience, officials say. Emory, for example, has designated a Black Student Alliance House that is occupied by sophomores or upperclassmen members of that organization.

Some schools allow freshmen in ethnic housing but still try to create a mixed environment. Cornell caps the number of freshmen in each ethnic dorm or house at 50 percent. Officials assign substantial numbers of students to each ethnic dorm from outside that ethnicity. At the African-American dorm where Jones lives, for instance, the 144 beds are almost evenly divided between Blacks and others. At the University of California, Santa Cruz, 350 of the 600 beds in ethnic housing go to freshmen. Racial demographics in those apartments and dorms echo those university-wide: about 47 percent White, 25 percent Asian, 18 percent Hispanic and 3 percent Black.

Because not every student assigned to ethnic housing has requested it, phone calls and e-mails inevitably pour in at the start of every school year from parents, says Mari Ortiz-McGuire, an associate college administrative officer at UC-Santa Cruz. “When they say their kids are White and don’t belong in ethnic housing, we don’t approve their requests for room change. Frankly, we have more problems with these parents than with students. Once they move in, very few want to leave. It’s not as if we have only one or two White students in a building.”

But when students aren’t getting the intended benefits of a program, universities take that into consideration too.

Utah State University offered a special house for Native Americans earlier this decade, but its number of residents ended up lower than hoped for, says theme housing coordinator Shannon Jolley. The students also felt isolated from classmates, so Utah State abandoned the set-aside and the Native students moved back to nonthemed residence halls.

The university found more success with “Global Village,” which pairs its international students with a U.S. roommate. Global Village is housed on two floors of a dorm and has expanded since its 2000 inception, Jolley says. Film festivals are popular, as are group dinners featuring cuisine from the homeland of one of the international students, such as Austria, Brazil or Japan. Americans in Global Village are often interested in study abroad or have parents working in military, missionary or another job that has exposed the family to cultures besides their own.

An Academic Component

Other schools have attached an academic component to their ethnic housing. For example, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University students in MOSAIC housing must enroll in a semester-long, three-credit-hour class focused on critical thought and discussion about race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, physical differences and their intersections. MOSAIC stands for Multicultural Opportunity and Social Awareness Interest Community. Now in its second year, MOSAIC has grown to 85 students, including Kaitlin Bookbinder, who says she is drawn to diversity issues as a gay, Jewish woman. Once a week, she and about a dozen MOSAIC neighbors get together informally to chat about issues raised in their required class.

One of the most impressive characteristics of MOSAIC students so far, officials say, is that many of them are majoring in engineering, math and the sciences, which typically have less leeway than the humanities for electives like MOSAIC’s diversity course. “MOSAIC students really want to be here,” says Ray Plaza, Virginia Tech’s director of diversity initiatives and MOSAIC coordinator. He and his Virginia Tech colleagues hope word-of-mouth among students helps MOSAIC continue growing.

At UC-Santa Cruz, Rena Lazaga says word-of-mouth recommendations convinced her as a freshman to choose Oakes College, which houses the bulk of the university’s ethnic dorms and apartments. A Mexican American, Lazaga lived at Oakes for three years before moving off-campus. “The community here is very close. It’s easy to talk to people and, whenever I had frustrations about race, there was usually someone else going through the same thing, and we could bring each other up.”

Emory student Damilola Osunsanya considers it a privilege to live in the Black Student Alliance house. “The reasons we have it today are the same as when the house was established — so that Blacks would have a place to go.”

As is customary for any campus program, university officials periodically consider whether race-based themed housing requires substantial change. Cornell, for one, is undergoing a self-study to determine whether additional themed houses or dorms are needed, although officials insist they don’t plan to drop any of the current themes.

Jones hopes that’s true. “Universities need to realize minorities need a space on campus that’s their own.”

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